Kerala: Back from the brink

   By Sharmishtha Sharma ,  27-Sep-2018
 Kerala: Back from the brink

Kerala faced the worst ever floods since 1924 with over 400 dead and millions homeless. As the State struggles to rebuild itself the question remains unanswered was it a natural calamity or a man made one

Incessant and torrential rains and the ensuing floods that ravaged god’s own country from May-end till mid-August claimed 483 lives and left millions homeless.The question that remained unanswered is whether it was man-made or natural disaster. Some claimed that it could be avoided with IMD making it loud and clear that it had warned the state much in advance.

The damage is enormous and the state government rightfully demands that  it should be declared a national disaster. However, environment activists claim it is a disaster that is man-made, a price that Kerala paid in the name of development. Indiscriminate mining, quarrying, construction and improper management of water bodies added immensely to the fury of water that came gushing down the hills.

Well-known ecologist Prof. Madhav Gadgil, whose report on the Western Ghats was hugely criticised in the year 2011, claims that while the heavy rains caused floods, the devastation would have reduced significantly, had the recommendations been implemented. The Gadgil Commission was formed by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010, after he attended a meeting in Tamil Nadu called by environment activists concerned about the ecosystem in the Western Ghats. The report was tabled on 31st August, 2011. This report was termed anti-development and too environment friendly, leading to another committee, Kasturirangan Committee. Both reports were outrightly rejected in Kerala and there were widespread agitations in the state against them. In the Idukki district, which is among the worst affected by the floods and landslides, the church issued a pastoral letter which warned of strong resistance to any attempts to implement the proposals.

Recommendations that could have helped Kerala

The Gadgil committee named as the Western Ghat Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) recommended that the entire Western Ghat region be declared Ecologically Sensitive Area and divided it into three zones based on the nature of threat name ESZ-1, ESZ-2 and ESZ-3. WGEEP proposed that no Genetically Modified crops should be allowed across the three zones and use of plastic bags in the commercial establishment and tourist spots to be phased out within 3 years span. While it rules out thermal power projects entirely in ESZ-1 the report says that environmental clearance should not be given to any large scale storage dams in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2. The location of the proposed Athirapally dam project on Chalakudy river in the Thrissur district falls in the ESZ-1. The Gadgil committee in its report has recommended strongly against building this dam.

Change of land use regarding non-agricultural to agricultural was not allowed in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2, it also asked to promote organic farming and phase out use of chemical pesticides and weedicides across the three zones.  It recommended not giving any new licenses for mining and quarrying in the ESZ-1 and 2, and to phase out in 5 years if it exists in ESZ-1. While reviewing the moratorium in ESZ-2, this was to be done under strict regulations and social audit till it phases out. Sand mining and quarrying not to be allowed in ESZ-1 and under strict regulations in ESZ-2.

Locals against implementation

While the Gadgil Committee recommended the  inclusion of locals in the decision making, farmers and political outfits protested against it. They feared they would be evicted from their habitat. The report was tabled in the year 2011, and it met with strong resistance for being “too environment friendly”. It was not even put in the public domain until an RTI was filed. The UPA government constituted another committee under Dr K Kasturirangan, which watered down the Gadgil Committee recommendations to a great extent. Compared to the 1,29,037 sq km area defined as ESA, the Kasturirangan report limited it to 60,000 sq km only. Kerala, however, opposed most of the recommendations regarding, building infrastructure, thermal and hydropower projects, mining and quarrying.

The 522-page Gadgil report was in English language, and it was not even made public initially, so the locals believed what they were told by them, who had vested interests. They believed that the small farmers in the higher ranges will be forced to leave their land and there will be a large-scale eviction. The WGEEP had recommended that the report should be translated in the local languages but it was not done by the government. What further added to it was the toughened stand of the Catholic Church. A pastoral letter issued by the Bishop of the Idukki Diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, in November 2013 warned of strong resistance if the government attempted to implement any of the two committees’ proposal.

Development activities bring flood fury

With a complete disregard to ecosystem of the fragile mountains, mining, quarrying, construction and encroachment upon the river catchment areas continues unabated in the state. The forest cover of the state has gone down significantly, and incessant mining and quarrying activities have left the mountains vulnerable to landslides.

Leader of Opposition in Kerala Assembly, Ramesh Chennithala has already demanded a judicial probe into the circumstances that led to opening of about 40 dams at a time. Prof. Amita Singh, Chairperson, Special Centre for Disaster Studies has also criticised the state authorities and said it was caused by human blunder. Dr V S Vijayan, former scientist, ecologist and member of the Gadgil Committee also highlighted the ignorance of KSEB officials in estimating the amount of water reaching the dam reservoirs.

Climate change and developmental destruction

The amount of rains Kerala received in the month of August has been unprecedented, and Dr Vijayan says this will be repeated as these are signs of climate change. Acute weather conditions, heavy rains, severe droughts are signs of changing weather patterns we are witnessing across the world.

Relief work and rebuilding Kerala

Relief and aid is pouring in Kerala from across the country, but the kind of destructions it has witnessed, it will take a lot of effort to rebuild Kerala again. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has asked the centre for Rupees 20,000 cr special package and to declare it a national disaster. As Kerala struggles back to normalcy, it is all the more important to rebuild keeping in mind the ecological sensitivity of our ‘God’s own country’.